She describes herself back then as a “default Republican” who voted for George Bush in 2000 and “knew nothing about politics.” Fellow students would play Mormon music full blast on a Sunday, and every Thursday afternoon, a siren from a male campus dorm would summon “the beautiful people,” as she calls them, for “Thirsty Thursday” root-beer parties. At 5:30 p.m. every day, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was broadcast across campus. “If you didn’t stop, hand on heart, you got the dirtiest, withering looks. People were very nice, even while they were judging you hard.”
Much of that judgment takes its root in the honor code—moral, behavioral and grooming standards by which students are expected to police themselves and one another. Sanders recalls, “Most people protest sweatshop labor. We protested to let us live our lives.”
Kate Savage met Sanders at BYU when the former was a 20-year-old, already-married “Molly Mormon.” That friendship proved a turning point. “I realized how much I did not want the life set out for me,” she says. “Ash has the genius of providing for personal transformation the people she interacts with.”
Now an ex-Mormon and divorced, Savage lives in Nashville, Tenn., with “my anarchist scamp of a lover,” from where they go to Guatemala to support indigenous tribes’ battles to keep their homes in the face of violent landowners, among other causes.
Sanders set up “discussion night”—originally called “virtues night”—for people like her who didn’t quite fit at BYU. “It would feel like all the mutts in Sunday school who were left with their hand up at the end of class getting together to discuss what matters to them,” she says.
She sought out people who challenged the orthodoxy of BYU, of the Mormon faith, be they a now-former BYU adjunct professor like Chris Foster—who riled many in Utah when he published a paper, citing Mormon scripture, that killing animals unless for survival, was wrong—or Steven Jones, whom she invited to speak at one of her discussion nights about his 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Being raised Mormon, Sanders says, means “you take ideas more seriously, because they’re life and death, not just ideas. They affect your ethical behavior in the world.” Those discussion nights, she says, “melted and reshaped my brain.”
During Sanders’ time, Foster says, “there were whole subcultures of people who knew about her and were motivated by her, whose undergraduate experience was completely altered because of knowing Ashley. She was this icon of free thought and free life and fun life and fun thought.”
Sanders organized protests against the firing of liberal teachers. She edited an alternative BYU magazine, but a piece she wrote on the honor code, she recalls, led to the Collegiate Post being shut down.
In May 2007, after six years and 200-plus credits, Sanders was graduating with English and philosophy degrees, only to learn the college had invited President George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney—the “arch-nemesis of all nemeses,” Sanders says—to give the commencement speech.
“It wasn’t if we were going to do something, it was what,” she says. That “what” eventually became renting, at the last minute, the McKay Events center at Utah Valley University and bringing political activist, author, attorney and then five-time independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader to give the keynote speech. “I like people who speak to me from a full throat, raining down whatever they’ve got to say,” she says.
She and other members of what became known as the BYU 25 had to raise $25,000 in several weeks to pay for the hall and Nader’s fee. After the liberal news website Daily Kos wrote about Sanders taking part in paid medical tests to raise cash, she says, donations flooded in.
Sanders says the speech she gave “felt so good and right, it felt like a victory in my body.” The alternative commencement “was a good way to leave BYU, with a beautiful, a very strong sense of community.”
Sanders’ fragile relationship with her Mormon faith finally disintegrated post-graduation, following her reading Michael J. Quinn’s secular LDS Church history, The Mormon Hierarchy, which included an assessment of the church’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. It was the final straw, she says, after years of listening to church elders lecturing young women on chastity and what they could and couldn’t do with their bodies.
In March 2008, Sanders worked as an intern at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. She says Nader “has more integrity than almost anybody I know.” She describes him as a curmudgeonly Luddite who still uses a typewriter and can’t figure out his intercom system. While she chafes at his “old-school, very top-down, ‘Hey, I’m in charge’ ” approach, she praises his relentless truth-telling.
Nader asked her to be his national youth spokeswoman. “Going around the country and talking to people about what I passionately believe” was her dream job, she says, but it had a dark side.
Promoting Nader “was like signing up to be crucified. People thought that Obama was the messiah,” she says. She was yelled at, exiled from groups, spit at by liberal protestors. “My shaping as a political organizer was in this very hostile place.”
The night Obama won the election, Washington D.C., dissolved into a “madhouse” of celebration, she recalls. In the face of such political rejection and embrace of a new president she viewed as Bush-lite, she couldn’t understand why “humans are crawling over each other to give away their power all the time.”
Sanders returned to Salt Lake City with her confidence battered after the Nader campaign. She nevertheless took on a demanding full-time position for former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson at his nonprofit High Road For Human Rights. “She was very committed to the point of being quite intense, and obviously very bright,” Anderson says.
Yet it was not a comfortable fit. “She was obviously really interested in doing a lot of other really local work on certain causes,” he says.
Sanders says she felt ill at ease with the nonprofit. “I didn’t want to be part of a glossy, non-governmental organization about one charismatic person,” she says.
Anderson, now running as a third-party candidate for U.S. president, rejects her characterization of his since-closed nonprofit. “It was about grass-roots organizing, about lining people up nationally to put pressure on our government so it would never turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses.”
In late February 2009, Anderson took Sanders to Washington, D.C., to promote High Road at Power Shift, a conference on climate change. After a meeting during which an activist was hawking diamond-encrusted windmill pins to sell to celebrities to help fund activism, Sanders realized she couldn’t continue.
Anderson doesn’t recall that meeting. He says that she spent her time in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend and sister rather than promoting High Road.
On their return to Salt Lake City, tensions between Anderson and Sanders escalated to the point that she abruptly walked out during a mass-mailing project after Anderson took her to task for not meeting her responsibilities. Anderson pursued her into the street, he says, wanting to talk to her and effect “a smoother transition.” Sanders says she hid behind a Dumpster and called her mother to pick her up.
A NEW BRAIN
In her waning days at High Road, Sanders discovered Democracy Unlimited, “a group that made sense” to her. According to longtime key member David Cobb, the Humboldt County, Calif.-based DU is a “non-hierarchical, horizontal, workers’ organizing collective,” which, among other successes, has passed an ordinance to cap the number of big-box stores allowed to open in the county.
She was hired as an intern in August 2009 and drove to Humboldt County to find two coastal towns, Eureka and Arcata, “so cute they make your teeth ache.” Sanders moved into a Eureka house with three other interns and five members of DU’s steering committee. Surrounded by redwoods and mountains, in a misty, rain-drenched, lush landscape, here was an “uber-hippie town,” where “awesome, cool organizers and activist people” lived alongside unimpressed loggers.
Cobb, himself the grandchild of a Southern Baptist preacher, recognized the spiritual base of her devotion to truth. “She is relentlessly authentic and really demands it of others.” She introduced political street theater to DU, organized costume parties, events “that helped draw a new type of person into the movement,” Cobb says. “She’s particularly adept at the intersection of art and activism.”